The Corner Man

Your boy wonder lost his title and won't take your calls. What's a trainer to do? Find another prodigy.

As Cunningham assesses the state of the upstairs boxing facility, he realizes that in his absence the fancy leather heavy bags -- bags he paid for out of his own pocket -- have been removed and replaced with inferior versions, one of which is currently being held together by duct tape. It's unclear who has done this, or why. "Dammit," the trainer says, lightly kicking a spit bucket, which ejects a stream of liquid that stains the boxing ring's canvas. Every once in a while Cunningham considers moving his operation to St. Charles, but he seems genuinely attached to this place. "It's my gym, and it's been there for me for the last four years," he'll say, attempting to explain the inexplicable. "I just -- I just like it."

The idea is for Spinks to get in his workout before the rest of Cunningham's brood arrives. But 45 minutes past the appointed time, Spinks hasn't shown. Cunningham tries the fighter's cell phone. No dice.

"He's not answering 'cause he knows I'm gonna chew his butt!" the trainer gripes. A moment later, though, he's more forgiving: "He's trying to enjoy his time off, is what he's trying to do. He knows when it's really time for business, I'll put my foot down."

Turn down the crunk! Joseph Dunlap coaches the 
young kids at Marquette while Cunningham tends to 
the pros.
Jennifer Silverberg
Turn down the crunk! Joseph Dunlap coaches the young kids at Marquette while Cunningham tends to the pros.

School having let out for the day, the gym has begun filling with young fighters too hungry to miss a day. Many are neighborhood kids who can't afford the registration fee. "The rec center wants $35 each to pay for the insurance," Cunningham notes. "But I usually end up paying it."

His assistant, Joseph Dunlap, is a man of remarkably few words, most of them admonitions to turn down the crunk (which otherwise blares at ear-splitting levels). An old boxing hand, Dunlap tends to the kids fresh off the street while Cunningham focuses on the pros. Today he's working with local 38-year-old William Guthrie, a former IBF lightweight champion who's looking forward to a June bout. As he wraps his hands, he raps with Cunningham about Oscar De La Hoya's legendary discipline.

"He was already a multimillionaire," Guthrie marvels. "And he still got up at five in the morning to train!"

Cunningham can't help but wish a certain fighter were a little more like that. "Some [successful] fighters are just as focused as they were when they were struggling, but then some get a little relaxed and a little lazy with the money," he allows. "Cory was relaxed and laid-back with no money, so he ain't changed a bit!"

A similar scene will play out the following day: Spinks will make arrangements to show up at the gym, then flake out on his trainer. A day later Cunningham will find himself making excuses on behalf of his fighter on another front, when Spinks nearly has a warrant issued for his arrest on an old charge of driving with a suspended license, his automotive privileges having been nixed owing to a missed child-support payment.

"Cory doesn't have a history of having trouble with the law," Cunningham explains. "He had paid, but the child-support organization hadn't sent it through so the city didn't see it in the computer. It was a big misunderstanding." (Spinks will plead guilty and receive six months' probation plus court fees.)

A trainer is in an awkward position in dealing with a successful fighter, observes Tim Lueckenhoff. "Cunningham's gotta protect his financial interest, because someone else could come along and snatch Cory from him," Lueckenhoff says. "Just like other sports agents -- they have to protect their possessions because that's how they make their living."

To hear Spinks tell it, Cunningham won't be hard up anytime soon. "I think he's the best that's out there right now," the fighter says of his trainer. "He's an old man in a young body. He knows what it takes to get to the top. He's always talking about the army."


Cunningham brightens when he turns his attention to Devon Alexander, a local amateur champ who last year narrowly missed earning a coveted spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Fighting as a welterweight on the February 5 Spinks-Judah undercard, the seventeen-year-old won a unanimous decision against Mexican Donovan Castaneda, to raise his pro record to 3-0. The bout netted him $4,000 and celebrity status at Vashon High School, where he's a senior.

Though he gushed on his golden boy then, today Cunningham wants to make sure success doesn't go to the kid's head.

"You ain't throwing nothin'!" he yells as Alexander spars with a partner. "Takes you forever to punch, and when you do it's one at a time, like you some knockout artist!" Tomorrow Cunningham will work with him on technique; today he seems entirely focused on Alexander's mind-set. Evidently the attitude-adjustment process requires a constant stream of verbal abuse. "You'd better get your head out your ass, 'cause your shit is not together," the trainer hollers, muting the stereo as if to remove any doubt that play time is over.

Backed into a corner, Alexander takes a few blows to the midsection before attempting to clinch his way out. When the bell announces the end of the session, Cunningham emits a sigh of disgust. Alexander hangs his head as he exits the ring, but minutes later his pearly smile is back and beaming beneath his wispy moustache.

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